Friday, April 7, 2017

Dipping a toe into hot water

I don't usually go near controversial topics.  I keep it light and fluffy and talk about how badly designed toilets are or sometimes about nothing at all.  But today, I'm going to turn a little bit serious and talk about women.  

The thing is, I can feel that even reading that there's been a sharp intake of breath amongst some people reading this.

So, on LinkedIn yesterday I recounted something which happened to me a few years ago.  It's a true story, and I gave only the highlights in a quick status update.  Here it is...

A few years ago, I met a recruiter for coffee.  During the conversation over coffee, he made one or two remarks about a woman who walked into the coffee shop which I thought were inappropriate remarks. 
I didn't say anything at the time, but never worked with the recruiter to either represent me, or to hire for me in any of the roles I've been in since. 
My only regret is that I didn't tell him why.  It feels a little bit too late to say something now, but I wish I'd said at the time that I wouldn't be using him, and why.   
He still calls every six months or so to see how I'm doing and whether he can help with hiring in my team.
It's a dangerous assumption that just because you're speaking with another man, you'll get away with making "laddish" comments about a woman's appearance.   
Those couple of comments have cost that recruiter quite a lot of roles over the years...

It's a brief account of coffee I had with a recruiter a few years ago, back in a previous job.  Meeting recruiters for coffee comes as part of the territory when you're a manager with a team.   You get to know some recruiters across the years, and will tend to stick with them as they move between companies, but there are always new ones who call out of the blue, buy you coffee and explain why you should start using them to fill your roles.  Quite often it comes to nothing, but sometimes you make a new relationship.

And so I was having coffee with a recruiter somewhere, and we were making the normal small-talk at the beginning of the meeting.  "What did you do at the weekend?" "Whereabouts do you live?" - all that kind of fluff that British people tend to start business meetings with.  In the midst of this initial flurry, a woman walked into the coffee shop and the recruiter stared at her, and then made a couple of comments to me about how she looked, with particular reference to her breasts.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with his remarks at the time, but for various reasons I never spoke up to say anything.  I just carried on with the conversation, said goodbye and then never followed up to introduce that recruiter into the process of where I was working at the time.  He still calls me every six months or so to see how I'm getting on.  I've never signed up to use him for hiring - either to represent me when I was looking for a new role, or when I'm managing a team and looking to hire some people into the team.  The truth is, I never will use him.  But I've never plucked up the courage to tell him that.

For the moment, though, let's wind back to the initial incident, and then we'll come back to today and the reactions I received to my post.

Whenever I am speaking to someone in a professional capacity, I am representing my company and they are representing theirs.   So if someone I'm speaking to professionally says something which I find objectionable, for me to call them out on it is to do so on behalf of the company, not just me.  That's something I'd be wary of doing, even if it's something as obviously unacceptable as uninvited sexual comments about a woman.  At the time I was a few years earlier on in my career in management, and I don't think I was quite as sure of myself as I am now.  And so I smiled politely and moved on with the conversation.   I think it's worth making clear that I have absolutely no doubt that the management of the company I worked for at the time would've backed me had I said something; my lack of confidence was in myself rather than in them.

The second reason I didn't say anything was more personal.  I identify unashamedly as a feminist these days, but that's not always been the case.  That's not to say that I've ever actively engaged in nor supported the subjugation of women, but it was something I hadn't really thought about.   Growing up as a white man, the fact that racism and sexism still run through daily life is something which can quite easily pass you by.  And it's to my own shame that I thought that as long as I wasn't being sexist or racist myself, that was enough.

My view changed when I asked a few questions of people I know well enough to speak openly with.  I read a few things which told me just how prevalent sexism still is, and I realised just how naive I'd been.  And so I asked a few women in my life for their own experiences.  I can point to those couple of days as precisely the time when I went from ignorance to anger to determination to help change things.    As a man you have to look to find sexism; as a woman it finds you every day.  It changes the way you walk to the shops to avoid the men on the building site who may whistle at you.  It affects how you feel about taking your car in for service because you're sick of being patronised by the mechanics.  It affects how confident you may feel in applying for a job because the company website feels "a bit blokey".    I can imagine that a woman reading this now will be surprised that this isn't bloody obvious to everyone.  But if you're a man reading this and think I'm overstating things, then talk to some women you know and trust, and ask them to tell you honestly what daily life is like for them.

And so back to the recruiter.  Of course, he didn't say the things loudly enough for the woman to hear.  He had presumed that because he was talking to another man, he could find common ground in ogling women. (Although it's not the point here, I find that quite ironic for another obvious reason, but moving on...)
But I'm sure she noticed him staring at her chest as she walked towards the counter.  I'm sure she noticed she was being watched and judged.

After my post on LinkedIn, quite a few people have told me that I should say something to him next time I speak with him.   But it's going to take effort, as I know it's not going to be easy.  It would've been much easier to say something at or close to the time.  But we are where we are, and I can't go back in time.  My issue is that to me this was something I recall clearly.  To him, it was probably just another meeting which didn't go anywhere and his comments are probably so common-place to him that he won't even recall making them.

The interesting thing isn't what people said in public, though; it's the private reaction I got to my post.  It was three-fold.

Firstly, I got a few messages of support.  People sharing similar stories and saying I did the right thing.  Although a few people also posted those messages in public, and much as they are welcome, they aren't the most interesting response.

Secondly, I got the expected messages telling me that I had over-reacted.  I had at least ten messages - some from people I know and some I don't - telling me that I'm being unfair, and that I shouldn't judge someone on the basis of a few comments made as an aside in the middle of a conversation.  All of these messages were from men, of course.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, are the number of people who've got in touch to say "were you talking about me? If so, let me explain... you misunderstood me...".  You'd be surprised how many people have got in touch to say this.

I've no intention of naming and shaming.  I'm going to park this and move on now.  I shall leave you with the door policy of a bar in Iceland.  It pretty much applies to who I invite into my life...




Added 10th April 2017:

A little postscript, which I guess I could've seen coming...

After having to spend far-too-much-of-my-time today deleting the more abusive and, shall we say, "unhelpful" comments from the post on LinkedIn, and reading and deleting the similar private messages I've received telling me that, amongst other things "I am only jealous because he saw her first" and "I am only angry because the recruiter fancied her and didn't fancy me" I've deleted the original comment on LinkedIn.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The pain of writing

A little while ago, I wrote about how I have difficult pronouncing a particular consonant.  Many people reading this have probably never heard me speak and so presumed that I had some hugely-apparent speech defect whereas the reaction from people who know me was generally that they had never even noticed which letter I have the problem with.   Fear of feeling self-conscious whenever I speak meant that I never did tell them which letter it was. I still avoid words which start with this particular letter if I have to do public speaking.

Which leads me to wonder if anyone has ever noticed the way I hold a pen.  I am generally right-handed (although I can play pool equally well either way around, amongst other things) and so my strange way to hold a pen isn't an adaption to prevent my left hand trailing over the wet ink as I move across the page. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that my thumbs will bend to a right-angle backwards, but won't bend forwards more than a few degrees...


For years, I presumed that everyone holds a pen as I do.  I love writing with a fountain pen and the tip of my little finger would quite often end up covered in ink; I presumed that happened to everyone.  I didn't really take much notice of how other people hold pens.



Recently, though, my pen holding has started to cause a problem.  On my right ring finger I started to get a little lump in the pad at the tip.  It was tiny to start with - maybe 3mm in diameter.  Recently I've been writing a lot more and it's definitely got bigger.  I write at least a journal entry every day and recently when I wrote a short work of fiction I wrote the first draft of that with a fountain pen on unlined paper.  But the lump in my finger has got considerably bigger.  Bigger to the point that I'm likely to have surgery in the near future to have it removed.

And so, I've been trying to teach myself how to hold a pen differently.  It's much harder than you would imagine.  When I was a teenager, I once tried to teach myself to write with my left hand and that didn't go particular well; I presumed this would be much easier.  I pride myself on having neat handwriting.  It's very rounded and flowing.  My Dad used to have incredibly neat handwriting and as I was growing up, the importance of neat writing was emphasised a lot.  So although I can make legible writing holding the pen between my thumb and index finger it's not as neat as I'd like it to be; I expect that's going to take longer to crack...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Les gerbilles se sont echappées!

Récemment, nous avons acheté une maison de campagne et nous y passons quelques jours chaque semaine avant de retourner à notre pied-à-terre Londonien.  

Les cochons-d ’Inde voyage avec nous à chaque fois.  Au début, elles n’aimaient pas cela, la cage étant liée, dans leurs esprits, aux voyages chez le vétérinaire et l’indignité qu’elles y subissaient.  Mais quelque mois plus tard, elles avaient embrassé la routine et leurs deux foyers.
En été, les cochons-d ‘Inde habitent dans une dépendance mais en hiver nous mettons leur clapier à la véranda.  La véranda est loin d’être luxueuse mais elle a un toit et du chauffage et constitue un refuge hors pair.

Nous avons également trois gerbilles mais celles-ci restent à la campagne même quand nous allons à Londres parce qu’elles peuvent très bien se débrouiller toute seules pendant deux ou trois jours.  Elles demeurent dans un vivarium en verre surmonté d’une cage en métal.  Les gerbilles a l’état sauvage vivent dans des galeries souterraines ; aussi les nôtres peuvent-elles, a l’intérieur de leur cage, creuser librement des tunnels dans le sable.  Elles passent tout leur temps dans ce labyrinthe à l’abri de la lumière et ne se montrent qu’occasionnellement.


Un jour, j’étais dans la véranda en train de nourrir les cochons-d ‘Inde et j’ai vu une souris qui se précipitait vers le coin.  Je n’étais pas surpris qu’il y ait des souris qui habitent dans la maison ; il est normal que l’on trouve les souris à la campagne, surtout quand il y a des boites de nourriture de gerbille.
Un mois plus tard, l’été est arrivé et il a fallu mettre la cage des cochons-d ’Inde a la dépendance pour qu’elles puissent passer du bon temps au jardin. 
Avant de déménager les cochons-d ‘Inde j’ai décidé de trouver les souris et les mettre au jardin aussi !  J’ai cherché dans le sac dans lequel on stocke la nourriture et il y a deux trous qu’elles ont rongé pour obtenir les délices dedans.  Dans le sac, il y avait un nid fait par les souris.

Soudain, deux petits animaux ont couru très rapidement et se sont cachés au-dessous du clapier des cocons-d ’Inde. 
Je me suis résolu a attraper les souris !   Je me suis couche sur le sol à côté du clapier.   J’ai vu un petit visage et deux yeux qui me regardaient.  J’ai reconnu ce visage.  Les deux animaux n’étaient pas des souris.  Deux gerbilles étaient au sol en train de me regarder.  Elles n’étaient plus dans leur cage !

Donc, nous n’avions pas de souris ! J’ai découvert un petit trou dans le couvercle de leur cage a travers lequel les deux plus petites gerbilles avaient réussi à s’extirper et s’échapper
Elles vivaient une vie très heureuse sur le sol de la véranda avec beaucoup de nourriture à manger sans limite !

Il nous a fallu acheter une cage plus solide pour contenir les gerbilles !


(This post was originally published here in English.  This is not a direct translation of the English but a re-write)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Green lights all the way

I don't believe that luck is anything other than chance.  It's like playing backgammon - you can get yourself into a position where almost every combination the dice fall in is positive, but you can never actually control how the dice are going to fall.

I was walking home from Liverpool Street station the other evening, and literally every crossing I changed to show a green man just as I walked up to it.  Every single one.  A bit like that annoying advert with James Corden, except I didn't ask anyone to "just call me Mr Green Light".

It wasn't my only stroke of luck during the day.  Earlier in the day, I'd been giving a serious announcement to my team in the office.  All standing around in a circle in the break-out space in the office, it was after I'd finished speaking the MD was talking that I realised that my phone wasn't on silent, that I was expecting a call and that my ringtone is currently the theme music from Strictly, starting with a bit "Hoooooooo!" noise at the beginning.  Even though the MD was talking, my attention was actually on my phone rather than her, willing it not to ring right at that moment.  Fortunately, it didn't.

Good luck must run out eventually.  Or more precisely, the random order in which good and bad things happen means that every run of good things is only going to be finite in length.  Like tossing a coin - every run of heads is going to be broken at some point.

I feel like there should be some metaphor here.  There isn't.  I was just struck by how many green lights I saw on the walk home the other evening. Nothing more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Avoiding the obvious

Having a new house to sort out took away much of my free weekend time, and so I've not got through as many books this year as I would like to have done even though all the trips to Warrington gave me plenty of time on trains and in hotel rooms with nothing much else to do.

Hopefully in 2017 I should get a bit more reading done.  An upcoming new job is going to mean fewer train journeys, but a shorter commute is going to mean more time at home to while away the hours with a good book.

I've picked six books which I read in 2016(1)

So let's start at the bottom, shall we?(2)





Tales from the Dance Floor
Craig Revel Horwood

Don't be shocked that I read such things.  I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who reads a lot must read the highest literature.(3)  A lot of time spent on trains - and in a previous job, planes - makes me want something to keep the mind and the pages turning as time passes me by more slowly than normal.

I really rather enjoyed All Balls and Glitter(4), which was Craig Revel Horwood's previous autobiographical volume and so when I saw on Twitter that there was a follow-up I decided to hunt it down and use it to make a train journey disappear.  

It was actually harder to find that I thought it would be.  I had presumed that a new book by someone associated with the Strictly leviathan would be stacked near the door of every WHSmiths branch, especially at stations where people usually want something light and fluffy to read.(5)  I even went to Foyles to try to track it down, and spent quite some time going back and forth between the "Dance" and "Television" sections convinced that I must missed it somewhere on a shelf between the two.

Maybe I should've heard the sound of warning bells given how hard the book was to find but eventually I did the unthinkable and ordered it from Amazon.  I do use Amazon for many, many other things - yet I rarely buy books online.  

For me, it's nice to meander along the shelves and see the book before buying it.  How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel to flick through the pages?  I love cold, blue screens for doing research and reading short articles, but there's still nothing quite like a warm, yellow book to tell a story.

After a few pages, the first impression wasn't good.  It was obvious that the prose just didn't flow in the way the prose had done in the first volume.  The content wasn't bad - it certainly wasn't in the same category of drivel as a Dan Brown book, for instance(6) - but the way it was told felt like disjointed, uninteresting sentences falling one after the other like dominoes.  There was no change of pace, no pauses for contemplation and no dizzying whirlwind evenings played out on the page.  

All the moves were there, but there was no feeling in the stiff dance through the pages.  

Maybe he wrote it in a rush or maybe he was contractually obliged to write a second volume without real motivation to do so.  Either way, it was dangerous to have my expectations set so high. 



Spectacles.  A memoir.
Sue Perkins

Not all memoirs are bad; some are a joy to read.  I actually read this before the Craig Revel Horwood volume took away my trust in expectations and so I didn't really have many before I started reading.  

Unlike the previous book, this one was everywhere.  Every time I went into WHSmiths at Euston whilst waiting for the train to Warrington its white cover and striking portrait stared out at me.  But at twenty quid for the hardback, I wasn't so keen to rush in.  Eventually, when it was part of an offer I bought it and took it on the train with me.

Never have I smiled so much throughout a book.   I obviously knew of Sue Perkins before reading the book - and not just since Bake Off, although I do also love Bake Off(7) - and this isn't one of those autobiographies where people spill the beans on previous lovers to sell a few extra copies; it's much better than that and all the better for it. 

One moment, involving a bucket, made me splutter out loud on the 0930 Euston to Glasgow Central.  Read the book, and you'll know when you get there. Sometimes I should trust my gut and buy a book when I first see it rather than waiting an age to pick it up.  




SPQR
Mary Beard

I bought this book quite early.  Mary Beard is wonderful, and her previous books have been the most engaging and entertaining journeys to Ancient Rome I've ever taken.  But they were short.  And SPQR is not a short book.  I have a stack of books(8) I've not yet read and whenever I finish one I return to the shelf and select a new one to start reading.  Although there's no ordering to the books I select; I rarely select the one which has been on the shelf the longest and certainly never select it on those grounds alone.  Choosing a new book to read is like selecting a pair of socks.  It's a product of mood and feeling.  Where will I be going and what will I be doing?  

Such a long book on such a weighty subject never quite made it to the top of the pile and so it gathered quite a lot of dust before I finally decided to pick it up and get going.

I saw Mary Beard talking about the book at an event before I started reading it.   Whenever she talks, she is so engaging; the fact that her enthusiasm is so obviously real makes it heartwarming and contagious.  This wasn't the only time I'd seen Mary Beard talk, but as I sat there listening to her talk about why she started with Cicero and what she really thought of Rome's foundation myth I could feel the book on the shelf at home on the other side of London calling distantly to me.  I picked it up to start reading the next day.(9)

Mary Beard has a wonderful knack of presenting Rome as seen through the eyes of people rather than through the telescope of history.  The world she conjures up feels real and complete,  rendered even more imaginable by her reassuring reluctance to fill gaps in source material with unannounced guesswork. 

Just how the best celebrity memoirs avoid the lurid stories of kiss and tell, the Julio-Claudian Emperors' excesses aren't played for thrills here.  We all know they were pretty perverted in both senses of the word but this book shows the history of Ancient Rome to be so much more than Eastenders in togas.  This book is definitely going to be going into my roster of books I read time and time again and I an sure I'll discover something new each time.



What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell


On one occassion, I arrived at Euston for my weekly trip up to Warrington and realised I'd forgotten to pick up a book from the pile and so needed to find something in WHSmiths.  This cover jumped out at me almost as much as the fact that the book didn't seem that long and so I could probably get into it on a train journey. (10) I wasn't aware of the short story which had been reworked into the first section of the book, and so had no idea what I was going to be reading.  

I certainly wasn't expecting the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between an ex-pat American living in Bulgaria and a local prostitute. 

It's certainly quite a gritty and grubby tale at times - I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading for your kids - but it does manage to draw two characters together and apart many times without any of the twists and turns feeling forced for dramatic purposes. (11) 

I did leave it with the lingering question though of whether this was actually a made up tale.  Either the author has a very good imagination or there's a little more to this tale than simple fiction. (12)

The Scarlet Gospels
Clive Barker

I read a lot, but I don't tend to read many book reviews and so quite often when there's a new book out by one of my favourite authors, the first time I am aware of it  is when I am buying it.

I have read The Hellbound Heart a few times and always thought that the Hellraiser films didn't do justice to the book.(13)  They took away the subtlety and replaced it with guts, gore and sex to increasing degrees as the film series rumbled on. The decline of the film series into nonsense almost stopped me from buying this book but Clive Barker has never let me down so far (14) and so I decided to pick it up from WHSmiths at Euston and give it a go.  

If inhumanity is presented constantly, then it ceases to shock and in their desire to be gorier and bloodier than before each of the films seemed to neglect to portray the backdrop of humanity against which the inhuman story was played out.  The story may quickly make its way to Hell but its footsteps always lead back to the real world. (15)

It would've been easy for Clive Barker to sit back and accept the royalties he's no doubt being paid for the continuing roster of films or to simply write something which continued the gore fest in increasingly ridiculous ways but it's nice to seem an author take their creation back with such grace and dexterity. (16)


The Railways
Simon Bradley

Some books have to sell themselves to me and some are just obviously one day going to end up sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick them up and open them for the first time.  I walked past this book myriad times in various railway stations before finally buying it and getting around to reading it.  It was so obvious to me that I'd end up buying and reading this book that I didn't feel the need to rush into it; one day it would just find its way onto my bookshelf of its own accord. (17)

This book was pretty weighty, but thankfully split into relatively distinct sections so would lend itself quite easily to a chapter or two in bed of a Saturday morning before getting up to face the weekend.  I've always have a fascination with railways, as I've written about previously, and I'm often fearful of reading books on subjects I love.

I try to make my life as evidence-based as possible and a necessary part of that is that sometimes my views change when I get new information.  But being rational doesn't stop my heart from attaching itself to enjoyable beliefs.  I yearn for the days when I believed in Santa. (18)

So it's always risky to open up something you hold dear and allow someone to give you new information.  My love of railways felt pretty safe, though.  In fact the book was about trains much more than it was about the railways they run on but it's entertaining to imagine yourself rattling along locked in a compartment with strangers who may be about to try to rob you or try to fleece money from you.  The Beeching map does get a reprint; and at the time I was yearning for more detail but sometimes the greatest pleasure in life can be achieved by avoiding the temptation of the obvious.




And so there you have it, it seems that I like to read things which avoid the obvious and aren't lurid.  Who knew I was so sophisticated in my taste..?







Footnotes

1.  Even though my reading time was limited I did read many more than six books.  Over sixty in fact.

2. I wrote this as the kind of thing CRH would say as a judge on Strictly but then became concerned it sounded homophobic.  Which it's not meant to be.  Maybe I should take it out in case people hate me for it?

3. I've read a couple of French novels, a book on advanced number theory and some poetry this year too, you know so it's not all been trashy nonsense.  Although there has been quite a lot of trashy nonsense in there, I guess. I'm not ashamed.

4. Best. Title. Ever.

5. I've never understood why it's presumed that those people getting on a train want something light to read, but those people getting on planes want something very thinky and business-oriented given the usual selection at airports.  I prefer "light and fluffy" on both.

6. I once started reading a Dan Brown book at an airport and it was _so_  fucking awful that I had to throw it away before getting on the place.  Fourteen hours to Tokyo with nothing to do was better than reading that drivel.  Sorry about my language by the way, but that's what you get for reading the footnotes.

7. On the BBC obviously.  It won't be the same on Channel 4.  

8. Anyone who's ready earlier posts will note that my time is now split between London and the countryside so for the pedants (and who else reads footnotes other than pedants?) I actually have two piles of books, one in each place.

9.  I am starting to worry that this isn't actually true, but for the purposes of dramatic narrative let's presume it is.  It was certainly pretty soon afterwards in any case.

10. I find that shorter books tend to have faster starts - I guess their whole pace tends to be quicker - so they are easier to get into on a train where I need something engaging straight away to take my mind off the journey.  It's the same reason I tend to start reading a new book just before a flight, so by the time the flight comes around I'm already invested in the narrative and so can close myself in the book more easily.

11. I am away that - if indeed this story is fiction and not autobiographical - the entire thing is made up for dramatic purposes.

12. I am actually quite glad this question hasn't been answered.  There was a great book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was presented as fact, and then exposed as fiction and the whole episode rather ruined the enjoyment of the book for me. A  little mystery is not a bad thing.


13. Given how few films I have seen in my life, I realise that it's odd that the Hellraiser films are there on the list.  But they are, and I rather enjoyed the first one, although I still preferred the version of the story in print.

14. I'm trying to think of this is actually 100% true.  I certainly can't think of a book of his I've been disappointed with at the time of writing. If I do think of one, I'll update this footnote accordingly.

15. I am aware that footsteps made by someone walking forward lead forward rather than backwards, but you know what I mean...

16. I thought it'd be fun to put in a little note at this point about whether Clive Barker is left-handed or right-handed.  The internet won't tell me, and although he doesn't appear on the many lists of "famous left-handed people" I read through I don't want to presume that he is therefore right-handed.  For some reason, he seems like the kind of person who would be left-handed, doesn't he?

17.  I mean here that I would eventually buy the book.  This isn't a euphemistic way to say that I stole the book. I most emphatically did not steal it.  I bought it from the little shop at Warrington Bank Quay station.

18. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that she doesn't think I ever believed in Santa, and come to think of it I don't remember a time when I believed in Santa either, but maybe I would be too little to remember it.  Anyway, my point isn't specifically about Santa so this doesn't really matter.  But then again, I guess if it did really matter, I'd have written it up there in the main text and not down here in the footnotes.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

La mort




I don't dwell too long on the thoughts of mortality which seem to come my way so much more frequently than they did when I was younger.  I don't consider myself old, yet I have reached the point in life where the remainder of my life no longer seems to stretch out in front of me like the endless path beyond the horizon I would amble along in my youth.

Recently, amongst the very old and gnarled apple trees in the garden, we planted a young quince tree.  It's about eight feet tall, and not yet fruiting.  It will get there eventually, but I won't see it reach the size and character of its neighbours even though I hope some day to be able to candy its quinces for Christmas.

When you're young, death for most people is a mercifully distant thing.  You know it exists and you see the impact it has on people around you, but until it starts to creep closer towards you, I don't think you fully understand just how final the end is when it comes.

Until the past few years, I'd only really seen one death close enough to me to full its full impact.  There had been bereavements of which I'd been aware but the first funeral I ever went to was that of a close family member.  I'd only ever felt distant tremors before, and now the firm ground on which I stood was being shaken by something much closer to home.  In the past few years, the reaper has appeared much closer to home on a couple of occasions (written about previously here and here).

The more times you see death strike people down close to you the more you realise that it really does come to us all in the end.  There is no avoiding it.  Every one of our paths will run out eventually.  Every one of us will one day take their very final step.

I've never thought of death as a subject to be avoided.  Of course I'd avoid it around people who've recently suffered a bereavement but only for fear of interrupting their grieving process not for fear of the subject itself.   There's a taboo surrounding death which has fallen away from subjects such as faith, race and sex in recent years.  But despite the shift towards a more open and liberal society in recent years, it seems that there's still a curtain hung around the subject of death which few dare to pull back for the world to see.

I don't find the fact that we'll all die someday as worthy of mourning; I'll let others mourn me when I'm gone rather than spending the finite time before then lamenting the inevitable.  I see the realisation that life is finite as a positive motivator to spend life well.  It's a limited resource and it seems a shame to waste it.  So let's remember those who have gone fondly, be sorrowful that we no longer get to make new memories but remember that it's not disrespectful to continue to live a full life when someone close to you is gone.  

When my time finally comes, I want to look back with as few regrets as possible.  
Living life well is the only way to make that possible.



Friday, December 9, 2016

Trying and failing to write a story



When some people see a crowd of dancers moving in time with each other, they are forced onto their feet by an urge to join in.    They start to move slowly in time and gradually pick up the steps as they go.  They watch the dancers around them and modify their own body movements to match as closely as they can those around them.  They become part of the thing they enjoyed to watch and so come to enjoy it even more.

I’d never do that; I wouldn’t dance in public if you paid me a million pounds.  Genuinely.
But I’m not immune to seeing something happen and deciding I’d like to get involved; whenever I read something I am pulled by an urge to pick up a pen and try to turn some thoughts into words.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I write a lot.  I keep handwritten journals which I update most days.  Not for any reason other than the act of putting pen to paper and building forms with words.   It’s a challenge to take the ideas which live and breathe in my head and see if I can record those ideas on the page.  To see whether I can lay cold, flat words onto the page in a such that when I read them back, they jump from the page and play out my memories as colourfully as before.

I write blog posts too. I’m writing one right now, in fact.  And blog posts are about the only place I write using a keyboard; I still do most of my writing – cards, notes and even professional notes at work – with a fountain pen. Those disposable fountain pens you can now buy have helped to keep me away from succumbing to the scourge that is the Bic biro; I can still flourish my g’s and y’s at the end of a line with a swirl without having to carry a pack of ink cartridges around with me.

My writing thus far as almost always been relatively short.  In a blog post, for instance, I tend to take a small number of ideas, toss them into the air with abandon and then attempt to catch them one by one and bring them back together all within the space of a couple of paragraphs as though I grabbed three clementines from the Christmas fruit bowl and flung them into the air only to catch them nimbly and plonk them back amongst the walnuts and dates.  Juggling clementines rather than throwing and catching them is more demanding of dexterity, and the more clementines you try to juggle, the higher you throw them and the longer you try to do it for, the harder the juggling gets.  The temptation to let one of them drop or catch them all and put them down becomes greater the longer you go on; especially if you’re only used to juggling three pieces of fruit for only a few seconds at a time.

And so when a friend asked if I’d like to contribute something to a written project she was curating, I was apprehensive.   I have never written anything for publication before and wasn’t sure that I should make my first attempt at juggling in front of an audience.  I did take up the challenge though, and although I never got my work across the finish line, the journey to that point was interesting enough to make the expedition worthwhile.

I held ten thousand words as my target and I nervously watched the word counter creep up in Word as I typed.  Some of the chapters started on paper on train journeys and in hotel rooms and got typed up after the fact, and some chapters were born digitally and never knew the freedom of ink on paper.  I got to nine thousand words before feeling the story was told and I should stop.  But the work was far from done.

I have never written fiction before, other than song lyrics and the creative writing exercises back when I was at school so I had no choice other than to apply the same rules I apply when writing factually.   I’d start with the story.  The first priority for me was to get all of the story told.  It didn’t matter whether the prose was terrible or whether points were laboured with repetitive vocabulary; I wanted simply to get the story told.

Placeholders throughout the text set instructions for future drafts..

*INSERT GREAT OPENING LINE HERE...

*WORK OUT HOW QUICKLY A LEAKY PLUG WILL DRAIN A FULL BATH

I was done with the first draft, at least.


But then came the hardest part – to take the plodding, pedestrian verbiage and turning it into a string of imagery-laden sentences of which I could be proud. I set myself the goal to avoid wastage in my wordage.   There should not be a word which didn’t carry meaning.  Not a single word should stand which wouldn’t impact the narrative should it be struck out.   I hacked away all the meat from the bones whilst watching the word count fall, shoring up any gaps I left on the way.

Eight thousand. Seven thousand. Six thousand.  The words slipped away without a struggle

I became ruthless with the fluff I’d written.  The entire subplot about the plant pot was carved out and thrown away; along with the pointless back story for the man who worked at the pub.  The words fell away like the deep vermillion leaves of autumn, forgotten and rotting to brown in a gutter.  What remained was stark and bare; shake it hard and there was not a single leaf left to fall.  Every word had purpose and reading through the story, the plot told hurtled like a freight train towards the conclusion.  I had told the story I wanted to tell, and nothing more.

But in my recklessness, I had thrown away some necessary distraction in favour of a soulless trudge towards boring resolution of plot which hadn’t been given chance to simmer.  I had stripped the burlesque dancer of feathers and fans which allowed only snatched glimpses of a nipple, and left a naked person standing there.  Nobody wants to see that.  And so I had to find some feathers and wave them around a bit to keep my secrets deeper into the act.

And so I set about adding smoke and mirrors.  Shops gained names, characters who passed by in the street gained height and sometimes hats and the world of the story became full again with the sounds and smells which serve not to progress the story but to cradle it as it finds its feet and marches forwards.  Plot points were left unresolved until slightly later and mysteries in the story given longer to smoulder away against the mind rather than snatching them away as soon as they began to burn.

The prose I produced was richer but something was still troubling me.  It took me a while to get there and many times reading through what I’d written to punch my fist through the chest and grab the heart of the trouble.

I had managed to conjure up images with the words and managed to string the words together in such a way that I enjoyed reading each sentence.  The story I had tried to convey had come across as bright as day and as dark as night with at least fifty shades between.  But I’d missed something much more fundamental; the story I was trying to tell was a really crap idea in the first place.


*INSERT BRILLIANT CLOSING LINE HERE









Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Trouble With Toilets

I have no idea how many times I've been to the toilet in my life.  But I'm going to suggest it's probably upwards of one hundred thousand times.  And yet it's something we never talk about.  When you watch TV or films, how often does a character say "I'm just popping to the loo", unless it's in order to remove them from the scene for dramatic purposes?

And yet we all do it.  Even though I have no direct evidence, I'm pretty sure that even The Queen uses a toilet.

But so shrouded by societal secrecy is the whole process of going to the toilet that the insides of toilets can remain something of a mystery.  I was was astonished, for instance, to discover that an adult female friend of mind had never seen a urinal.  Logic says to me "but why would she have seen one?" but the idea that something I've used pretty much every day of my life since a very young age would be such a mysterious object to someone else fascinated me.

In one of my previous jobs, the general manager of the company one day got a comfy chair for his office.  One of the women in the office walked in and said "that chair is just like the one in the toilets".  None of the men in the company were at all aware that the ladies toilets had a comfy chair in; there was no comfy chair in the men's toilets.  From that moment on, I had images in my mind that whilst the men's toilet was rather functional, although entirely sufficient in that function, the ladies toilet was an oasis of relaxing calm.  Probably with floaty drapes and scented candles to go with the comfy chair.

I guess my point here isn't so much that I think ladies' toilets really are more luxurious than men's toilets.  Rather my point is that I have no idea what the inside of a ladies' toilet would look like and so my observations on toilets are only the product of spending many minutes - and pennies - in the gents.

When going to the toilet in a restaurant or pub or whatever, the first issue you face is what lies beyond the door.  Is there just one single toilet in a room or is the door the way into a group of toilets, each with their own little room?  The only way to find out is to push the door.  But what if it's just one of those toilets with just one in there.  Second only to the utter horror of walking in on someone who's sitting on the loo is having to stand outside having wiggled the lock and having to exchange awkward glances with the person as they come out and search for the person who was wiggling the handle whilst they were doing their business.  Pushing the door is fraught with risk.

Once in, of course, the situation is then clear.  Except if you find yourself in a two-door toilet.



This has sprung up recently in many places; the toilet where you go through one door, and there's a second door into the toilet itself but only one toilet in the facility.  Which door do you lock in this situation?  Also - what is the point of the inner door.

My view on the point of the inner door can be summarised by a description of a toilet I find terrifying in a bar in Seattle, which I've outlined below



Ostensibly, this is just a single room toilet, but it plays to what I believe to be one of the most fearful experiences.  The experience of sitting on the loo more than arm's length away from the door.  And in this room, the door is a LONG way out of reach.  So I wonder whether the inner door is a kind of lavatorial comfort blanket within arms reach that you can lean against should the outer door start to waggle.

Worse still, actually, is the one below, which is a workplace toilet at one of the places I worked



You can't even see the door from the toilet here.  Buy maybe worse, the layout of the room is such that when you first walk in, it's not clear whether there's just one toilet in there, or a row of them - so your instinct isn't to turn and lock the door as soon as you get inside.  And if you're anything like me, that leads you to wonder whether you locked the door at all when you're in a - how do I put this - inconvenient position for getting to the door quickly to check it's actually locked.

But what if you can't even see the cubicle door right in front of you?



What's particularly disturbing about this toilet - another workplace toilet - requires a little explanation.  In line with eco-friendly policies the toilet lights come in when you walk in and set off a motion sensor and then turn themselves off again when the sensor hasn't detected motion for a particular period of time.  All perfectly sensible so far.

Except if you don't think about where you put the sensor.  I've shown the position of the sensor with a yellow star, and the cubicle doors go from floor to ceiling.  One thing I do like about British toilets - is that the cubicle doors close fully.  It's very unnerving for a British person to use one of those American toilets where you can be sitting there and notice that there's a half inch gap all the way around the door.  But that's not the point.

But the point is that once one is attending to one's duty in the cubicle, one is out of view of the motion sensor.  I'm not sure whether the limited jiggling possible whilst on the toilet would set off the motion sensor anyway; but it certainly won't detect motion with a solid wooden door in the way.  So that means that there's a very good chance that, presuming it's not a busy time of day for the toilets, the lights can go off whilst you're sitting there.  And you'll notice from the picture that two of the cubicles don't have windows at all, meaning that the only thing you can do is sit there until someone else walks in and turns the lights back on.  At which point, you'd walk out of the cubicle revealing to them that you've been sitting on the loo in the dark.  Or can you attempt to complete your use of the facilities in pitch black and hope that when you emerge from the cubicle, set off the sensor and get blinded by the renewed light, you've tucked yourself back in sufficiently.

Nobody wants to be suddenly illuminated  to find they're not properly dressed.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What makes a concert so good..?

I've been to many concerts over the years.  In fact, before starting to write this I tried to work out how many I'd been to. I couldn't even count how many times I've seen the Pet Shop Boys previously...

I suppose that exposes me as a bit of a fan.  Which is true.  I've seen them doing small gigs - including doing the tour for the album "Release" when they went all guitar-y.  And I've seen them doing Arena things.  They've been camp.  There've been lots of lots.  And it's always been loud.

And then there was "Inner Sanctum".

Not quite a tour, "Inner Sanctum" is for four nights only at the Royal Opera House.  Es Devlin again coming up with the stage design and promise of something unique.  Something "special".

And so it was.

I don't know why it was so good.  It's entirely possible that a combination of my mood, and the level of expectation meant I was going to enjoy it.  But even once we got a few songs in, I knew this would be a gig it'd take me a long time to forget.

We were sitting in the front row of the balcony, directly facing onto the stage.  A clear view, no silhouette'd heads bobbing around in front of us.  And what a view.  I'd never been inside the Royal Opera House before, and it's certainly quite a venue.  So much gold and so many lights.  Fabulous, you may say.

Anyway, on with the show.  It was oomph-y in the way that the Pet Shop Boys should be.  Adding a few extra musicians lifting the percussion tracks from sequencers and placed some of the rhythm into the hands of two fantastic drummers.  The sound was crystal clear.  No muddy merging of bass and drums.  No fading of vocals into synth lines.  It was clear and sparkly but with a bass running understand which made your stomach throb.

And then there was the set list.  A song from almost every album.  And not the obvious choices at that.  For instance, "In The Night" which - I'm informed - had never been performed live before, despite being the best part of 30 years old.  And in this show, given a driving beat which lifted it from being an extended remix of the Clothes Show theme and into a driving anthem which could've been written yesterday.

And then there were the lights.  I've seen light shows before. I've seen impressive lightshows before.  But this was on a different level.  Photographs don't do justice the way the lasers were used and just how spectacular they looked.

I've been to many concerts.  But this was the best.  Genuinely.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Escapology

(J'ai réécrit cet article en Français ici)

We recently got a place in the countryside.  So we're now splitting our time back and forth between the house out here and the flat back in Wapping.

And so that means the guinea pigs come back and forth with us too.  At first they weren't so keen on the idea; previously the cat basket had been associated with trips to the vet and the ensuing prodding and poking, so they didn't take too kindly to it.  But now, after only a couple of months, they've settled into the routine of going back and forth between two cages.

Given we moved into this house when it was still cold, their cage was in the sun room.  I wouldn't call it so much as a conservatory; it's just a simple building attached to the back of the house with lots of windows, and heating and lighting - so ideal for the guinea pigs in winter when we wouldn't really be using the room anyway.

Also in there are the gerbils.  They don't always come back and forth with us, as they can go a few days without daily attention.  They are in a glass tank with a metal attachment at the top that they can go up into when they want to get out of the burrows they've made in the tank below.  The burrows are so extensive in all the substrate that it's not unusual that we only see the more adventurous mother of the group every day; the others only put in an appearance now and again when we're out there.

A few days ago, I was out feeding the guinea pigs and I saw what looked like a mouse scurry under the cage.  It's not surprising that there are mice out there; the other day I saw next door's cat wander past proudly carrying a mouse in its mouth, so it's no surprise the lure of food would bring mice into the sun room.

So today, whilst preparing the guinea pigs to move them into the summer house at the far end of the kitchen lawn, I thought I'd have a look for the mice.  I looked down into the hessian bag where we keep the gerbil food and noticed a hole chewed in it.  As I moved it around, two shapes darted out and underneath the guinea pig cage.  Obviously the mice had made a nest in there where there was both a supply of bedding and a supply of food.

And so I decided to try to catch the little buggers.  I lay down on the floor and looked under the guinea pig cage and a little brown face was staring back at me.  A very familiar little brown face.  In fact, it was our little brown gerbil's face.

And so, it turns out, we didn't have mice after all.  But the two younger (and slimmer) gerbils had managed to create a hole in their cage just big enough for them to squeeze out and had spent however long since they'd got out living a rather wonderful life in our sunroom with open access to food and bedding.

Devious little sods.  Round one to them.  Time to buy a stronger gerbil house!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Crime Museum Uncovered

This weekend, I went along to the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition at the Museum of London.

I wasn't really sure what to expect.  I guess I was expecting it to be a little bit gruesome and disturbing.  It wasn't really either. It was interesting and thought-provoking.

One of the first exhibits is a row of nooses, hanging from a beam.  In front of each one is little label giving you the name of the person who was hung using the noose.  Just beyond is an "Execution Box".  A box of the necessary equipment for hanging someone was arranged in a glass case.  The hood to go over the head.  The weighted bag used to test the noose overnight before the execution.  And the noose itself, of course.

It's easy to become distanced from execution.  Here in the UK, the last capital punishment happened way back in the 60s.  And don't believe those people who tell you that you can still be executed in the UK for "murder in a dockyard" or "high treason".  Not true I'm afraid.  The death penalty in the UK is gone.  Even in wartime.  It's gone.

There's something quite sobering about looking at the plain wooden crate which was shipped around the country by train.  It connects you to the person whose job was to kill other people.  Within the memory of many people around today, there were people whose job was to legally kill other people in this country.  Seeing the instruments of the profession really brings that home with a thud.

Around the corner into the main room of the exhibitions.  Guns. Knives.  Secret weapons hidden in every day objects. Terrorist bombs.  More paraphernalia of death. But this time deemed illegal.

We all see crime dramas on the TV, and we've all seen a gun being pointed at someone on a screen.  But it's different being so close to guns which really were used to kill people.  Looking at the gun Ruth Ellis used to kill David Blakely and knowing that she pulled the trigger, and in return for which she was then killed by the state.  It causes you to stop. And think.

The side wall was a line-up of cases each representing an individual case.  Cases which raise questions of the nature of diminished responsibility.  The first time fingerprints were used in a case.  Cases where the murderer was caught despite there being no body available.

And then finally, at the end of the room, a row of cases with bombs.  IRA bombs.  Bombs from the 7th of July bombings in London just a few years ago.  Nail bombs.  The scientist inside me looking at the (mocked-up) Semtex and thinking "That's a much smaller quantity of explosive than I would've expected". But throughout the whole exhibition it's hard to remain distant from the tangled lives of those people who were on both sides of each of the crimes explored.

I'm not sure what I expecting from the exhibition.  But I can honestly say that I've been thinking about it a lot more after my visit I expected to.   I'd recommend a visit.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Farewell to Chiswick

Soon, I'll no longer be making my weekday trips over to Chiswick.  For the past four-and-a-bit years I've been coming over here Monday to Friday.  I've learned every bump on the District Line from Tower Hill to Gunnersbury and recognise quite a few of the faces of the people who have an overlapping daily routine.  I don't know them, of course, but the faces of a few people who travel to Chiswick Park every day are familiar to me.

I didn't really know anything about Chiswick before I started work here.  Years ago, when I used to play badminton regularly, I used to sometimes play at the leisure centre in Brentford after work.  I didn't work over this way, but it was halfway between work and where my friend against who I played lived and so it made sense to make the trip out here.  After playing, he'd quite often drop me back at Gunnersbury in the car, and then I'd take the District Line all the way back over to home in Wapping.

At the time, I didn't really notice that there was an office building over Gunnersbury station; I certainly didn't think that one day I'd be working in that office building.

When I came over here for interview, it seemed like a long way west.  I suppose it is a long way west.  I remember getting off at Gunnersbury, way before the start of the interview - I'm always early for interviews.  I walked along the High Rd, not really knowing where I was going but given that I had half an hour until the start of the interview, I thought I'd walk for ten minutes, turn around and walk back, and then I'd be an acceptable "ten minutes early" for the interview.

I only got as far as the junction down the road; I never got as far as Sainsburys and Waitrose.  So my view of the area wasn't great at that point.  It was miles away from home, and there was nothing here.
One thing led to another, and I ended up being offered and accepting a job here, so a few months later I made the journey over here "for real".  This wasn't a trial. This would be my commute for the next four years.  As the lunchtimes progressed, I ended up exploring the area a little more, and realised that had I pushed on just a minute or two beyond my pre-interview walk, I would've known that Chiswick isn't actually all that bad.

I found myself a gym too.  There's a subsidised gym in the business park, but I found myself a little independent gym (West4 if you want to Google it - I'd recommend it).  Away from the hoardes of colleagues and office workers, it's set in a small residential street.  For most of the four years, it's acted as my lunchtime escape from work and from being surrounded by the same faces.  Nobody else from work ever seemed to be a member there. I guess the free Starbucks vouchers for going to the Virgin Active in the business park were just too much to resist.

It's easily to malign Chiswick.  It's easy to write it off as a place full of people living in expensive houses and driving expensive cars to expensive shops.  And there's a lot of that going on. But actually, I've enjoyed calling Chiswick my place of work for four years.  I don't yet know where I'm going to be going next, but I do know that despite the pain of the District Line every day, I'm going to miss good old Chiswick.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's that time of year

It's the time of year when everyone seems to look back at the past twelve months, and quite often attempts to draw a line in the temporal sand, step over it and make their lives better.

I doubt, no matter how long I live, that I'll ever have a perfect year.  That's probably true for most of us.  Nobody is ever doing to look back at their year and name all the things which went too well and resolve to make them worse, so it's only natural that we hear so many people talking about how "bad" the past year was, and how they will move on in 2016.

My 2015 hasn't been bad.  I've had worse years and I've had better.  I had an amazing holiday which I doubt I'll ever repeat in either the sense of retracing the route nor in scale.  Yet, I find myself about to leave a job which I've enjoyed for the past four years.  I've not lost the weight I had planned to lose in 2015, but I have vastly improved my French.

I've certainly not written in here as often as I had planned.

But yet I head into 2016 without resolutions.  I've always found that priorities work better for me than arbitrary goals, and so I head into 2016 with priorities rather than resolutions.

In 2015, I went through the job interview process for the first time in a while.  It's a strange process, and probably going to be the catalyst for a few entries in here.  Job interviewing has also brought me back into contact with recruiters - now there's a profession with a bad name. Another few entries lurking in that thought too, I think.

But mostly I head into 2016 positively.  My house isn't flooded. My city didn't suffer terrible terrorist atrocities.  I have a roof over my head and enough food to eat in the fridge.  I don't feel that my best option in life is to take a potentially life-threatening journey across the sea only to find myself demonised by many people when I get there.  My 2015 wasn't perfect, but I'm not going to complain.


Monday, November 23, 2015

It's been a while

It's been a long while since I've written in here. Probably so long that I should consider this a new blog rather than just skipping over the gap like nothing happened.  Well not much has happened.   Well not in my life anyway.  Oh, well I went on a really long holiday, but not much besides that.  The holiday wasn't the length of the whole gap away from this blog though.  So I don't really have an excuse.

Anyway, like many people, last week I updated my Facebook picture to include a French flag.  I didn't use one of the in-built overlay things; I found a picture of a French flag in my own photos and used that.  But now I'm stuck with it.  It's made me realise when I never usually do these things.  No Pride flag, no Red Ribbon on World AIDS Day. It's not because I don't care, it's to avoid the awkwardness of when you take it down again.

It's a bit easier when it's a particular day.  You can take it down as soon as that day is over. But I put up a French flag in order to demonstrate solidarity with French friends. To show them I care.  So how long should I leave it up. If I take it down now, am I showing them that I no longer care?  If putting the flag up with to indicate that I'm thinking of how difficult this must for them, does taking it down mean that I've given up thinking about the attacks in Paris and gone back to pondering who's going to win Strictly this year?

Of course not, but it's the dangerous ground you step into when you do this public show of support.  I should just rely on the fact that my friends know I'll be thinking of them.  But now I'm stuck with a French flag as as Facebook profile picture and have to think of a delicate way to remove it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Disappointing dreams

I find dreams interesting.  Not in any sense of believing that they reveal innermost desires, nor that they can in any way predict the future or wander into the distant past.  I've always found my dreams to be a strange mix of real things from the day, and other things which have wandered into my mind from books or from snatches glimpsed from whatever is on the TV.

But sometimes my mind will come up with something rather lovely, and it can be a disappointment to wake up in the morning and find that it was just a dream.

Last night I dreamt of a Victorian building in Belfast.  It was a brick building with huge arches along the front in yellow and red brick.  Inside was a long hallway, looking like a brick-built canal with a viewing gallery along the side.  Crowds would gather along the edge and wait for the tide.  When the tide came into the harbour, a series of tunnels brought the water up and a rush of water would fill the canal violently throwing waves over the crowd who roared with delight.  It was just like being at the seaside.

There was something rather lovely about it. I'm just disappointed to wake up and find that this isn't a real thing.  I've also never been to Belfast.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shopping

I enjoy shopping.  I enjoy the process of going and looking at nice things and coming home with more nice things than I had before I left the house.  I guess I'm a bit of a magpie.  Although not everything I buy is shiny.

Many things are shiny though.

Today I went over to Canary Wharf.  I remember years ago when nobody was there at weekends and there was a Tesco Metro and a few sad-looking shoe shops.  But these days it's a proper shopping centre.

I thought I may look for some new shirts.  I don't actually need any - in the traditional sense of the word - but it's always nice to add a little more variety into the wardrobe.

But shirt shops are so intimidating.  Why do they need quite so many staff?  Why do the staff always follow you around silently, hovering just out of sight waiting to pounce if you should show any interest in a shirt.  I don't tend to buy "plain" shirts, and so it often takes me a while in shops to find the small section where they put the shirts with patterns.  I'm not really interested in owning a wardrobe full of identical "slightly blue" or "slightly pink" shirts.

So wandering around shirt shops in a area which sells mostly to people who work in the financial sector can mean quite a search to find a shirt which isn't plain, or has more pattern than just a subtle stripe running through it.

Twice today I left shirt shops because of an assistant following me around silently like a creepy stalker.  I ended up in Waitrose - at least the staff there don't follow you around the place.

After successfully getting a shirt with enough pattern to keep me interested, I popped in JD Sports to pick up some new tops for the gym.  I find with gym tops that I get through them pretty quickly.  They get worn and through the wash so often that they don't tend to last all that long, so I like to get new ones from time to time.  Anyway, I was paying, and a guy came in having called in advance to reserve a pair of trainers.  Is that something people do?  I don't really get the "designer trainer" thing, but it surprises me that someone would call ahead and ask for a particular pair of trainers. Maybe I'm just too old to understand.

Despite the intimidation, I can never get as excited by shopping online as by actually going into a shop and looking at things.  I think I enjoy spontaneous shopping more than researched shopping.  Of course, if you're buying something expensive then research is good.   But if you're buying a shirt, or a suit, then I find that spontaneous shopping with a limited budget is actually more fun.  It's more fun to say "I'm going to go out and spend up to X on a shirt today".  Much more fun than trawling the internet to save yourself every last 50p...

Talking of which, it's Eurovision in the not-too-distant future - I must start buying stuff...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dreams

I never really remember my dreams, and so it's unusual for me that I do recall quite some detail about last night's dream.

I was in my office.  Not my real office, of course. But there's a tall, square-sided glass building which seems to function as my office.  I was looking out of the window at the planes flying overhead.  The "dream" office is definitely in London, although not in Chiswick where my real office is.  More likely in Edgware Road where my first office in London was.

And then I saw a missile fire up from amongst the low buildings and into the sky.  Suddenly, the engine of a plane came drifting down. Yes drifting - not falling - and hovered outside the office window for a few minutes. It was close enough that the office was shaking.  The flight number (SK996 for those who care) was written on the engine.

And so this concerned me, as I was flying to Las Vegas from Heathrow that evening, and I wondered whether the airport would still be open.  It was at that point that I found myself in a huge underground shopping complex in Uxbridge.  After walking for what seemed like miles, we ended up at the Hammermith and City line platform and got the train to Heathrow. Which was open again and planes were flying.

I find this interesting.  Not in any supernatural, prescient, sense of course.  Just because I can remember this dream in much more detail than normal. It's fairly normal for me to remember dreams in quite a lot of detail as soon as I wake up, but then over the following hours the clarity fades and by the time the day is growing old, I forget even the main thrust of the dreams.

But there are locations which come up again and again in my dreams.  There's the tower block with the garden on top. Which I think is the same building as my office which keeps recurring in my dreams.  Most of the time the building is in London, but it has been in Beijing once, next to a hotel with an amazing foyer and huge lush green gardens with tables amongst the trees where you can eat the most amazing Chinese food.

Dreams are odd.  I guess that's what I'm saying.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A sad loss to the guinea pig world...

We lost one of our guinea pigs recently.  My lost, I mean "she died" of course. We didn't put her down somewhere and forget where we'd put her.

It's a strange situation when a pet dies. Obviously there's an emotional connection, and it's sad. Although at the same time, it's important to retain some perspective.  It's OK to feel sad, but I'm not going to be taking any days compassionate leave from work to grieve.  Which is why it is strange that we did manage to give a complete stranger the impression that we were grieving heavily.  Let me explain.

So of all our guinea pigs, Marmalade was one of the special ones.  She had an operation for bladder stones around two years ago.  Guinea pigs don't cope well with general anaesthetic   She recovered well initially but then her weight started to drop. With guinea pigs, this is a bad sign.  So we were hand-feeding her and eventually even giving her daily injections of subcutaneous fluids.  At some point during all of this, when she was very weak and not eating for herself, she managed to do something to her back leg and dislocate it.  She was nowhere near strong enough to go through the procedure to reset the leg and - in all honesty - we thought she was so ill that she may not make it through anyway.  And she seemed to be coping OK with the wrongly-angled leg.

Then there came a point when we spoke to the vet and agreed we'd just withdraw treatment.  She wasn't showing any signs of getting any better, and so we decided we'd withdraw everything except the pain medication to keep her pain-free and some regular water to make sure she kept hydrated.  Then she surprised us by deciding to eat a biscuit.  The first thing she'd eaten of her own accord for over a month.

And over the coming weeks, she ate more and more and put weight back on, and eventually was back up to full weight.  Except now of course she had a slightly dodgy leg.  She was getting around fine, but we did wonder whether there was anything we could do about it.

It's normal for most vets to put guinea pigs under general anaesthetic for an X-Ray - just to keep them still - but there are some vets who can wrap the guinea pigs up to keep them still and do the X-Ray without the need to knock them out. So we had that done, and sure enough the leg was indeed dislocated.  So much so that it probably wouldn't "go back in and stay there" particularly successfully.

And so she plodded on with her three working legs and "slightly at the wrong angle leg" for another two years.  She even got into a battle for dominance with a young, fully fit new guinea pig we introduced her two.

But in the past few months, she started to lose weight again.  We took her back for another X-Ray and the bladder stones were back.  So faced with a decision - if we didn't put her in for an operation, she would just fade away over time - or if we did, we'd run the risk of a bad recovery again. So we had no real choice other than to put her in for an operation.  Despite a brief rally afterwards, she ultimately wasn't strong enough to recover from a general anaesthetic again.

And so what to do with her.  We have a roof garden here, and so we have quickly run out of space to bury guinea pigs in a traditional way. And we didn't really just want to throw her away, so that left us with the option of cremation.  So last weekend we found ourselves at a pet crematorium out in the Essex countryside.

We turned up, with her safely wrapped up and boxed up.  The receptionist said to us "you can go straight through to the chapel".  Chapel.

So we went into the side room, carrying the guinea pig in the bag.  It was a room painted white, with a large red cushion on which I guess one is supposed to lay out your deceased pet to say goodbyes.  And there was a little book in which to write a message.

And so we stood there. At this point, we were entirely sure what we were supposed to be doing. And so we waited.  We were slightly early for our appointment time, so we expect that come 11am they'd come into the room and we could do the paperwork.  And so we waited.  Past 11am. Past 11.10am.

By now we'd been standing in the room for half an hour.  Eventually we plucked up the courage to go back out and ask the receptionist whether she had forgotten us.

"Oh" she said "we were leaving you to grieve"

And so there you have it - the receptionist had it in her mind that we had spent half an hour grieving over the loss of our guinea pig.  She was a lovely, adorable and very amiable little pig.  But I don't think we're going to spend half an hour crying over her in a chapel.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Expectations

From time to time, I find myself descending into a spiral of clicking on Wikipedia.  You go to look for one thing, such as "what's the name of the brewery who own the Queen Vic in Eastenders?  I can remember the one from Corrie but not the one from Eastenders".  And so, I find out that the brewery sold the pub many years ago, and it's passed through the Mitchell family lots and is now owned by Danny Dyer. Apparently.

But then curiosity takes me into clicking on the production of Eastenders. Ever since I was a kid I've had a fascination with how TV shows are produced.  Back in the day, I went around Granada Studios Tour in Manchester several times.  I wasn't interested in the immersive parts - you know, the bits where an "East German Guard" got on the tram and everyone had to pretend to be scared. I found that all a bit silly, and embarrassing - but I absolutely loved the parts where they showed you cameras and told you how things were made.

So anyway, when presented with a Wikipedia article on Eastenders, I'm obviously going to read about how it's made, whether the Queen Vic has an inside and what's beyond the railway bridge.  And in doing so I came across this paragraph - don't worry, you don't have to read it... skip past if you want...

"Although episodes are predominantly recorded weeks before they are broadcast, occasionally, EastEnders includes current events in their episodes. In 1987, EastEnders covered the general election. Using a plan devised by co-creators Smith and Holland, five minutes of material was cut from four of the pre-recorded episodes preceding the election. These were replaced by specially recorded election material, including representatives from each major party, and a scene recorded on the day after the election reflecting the result, which was broadcast the following Tuesday.[48] The result of the 2010 general election was referenced in 7 May 2010 episode.During the 2006 FIFA World Cup, actors filmed short scenes following the tournament's events, that were edited into the programme in the following episode.Last-minute scenes have also been recorded to reference the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, the two minute silence on Remembrance Day 2005 (2005 also being the year for the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar), Barack Obama's election victory in 2008, the death of Michael Jackson in 2009, the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, Andy Murray winning the Men's Singles at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, Scotland voting no against independence in 2014, and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War."

To summarise, Eastenders is usually filmed weeks in advance - but sometimes they film last minute scenes to reference breaking news events and slot those scenes into episodes at short notice.  They've done it for the following:

2006 World Cup
2010 General Election Result
50th Anniversary of the end of WWII
Two minute silence for Remembrance Day 2005
Barack Obama's Election Victory
Death of Michael Jackson
2010 Comprehensive Spending Review
Andy Murray winning Wimbledon
William and Kate's Wedding
Result of the Scottish Independence Referendum
100th Anniversary of the start of WWI

And something struck me.  I can understand why an election result isn't known that far in advance.  But the 50th or 100th anniversary of something is surely something the producers can plan for and write into the script in advance?